One of the things of which we York countians are proud is that the Articles of Confederation, our nation’s first constitution, was approved right here 239 years ago today, on November 15, 1777. The Articles served the nation well through the Revolutionary War and beyond, until replaced by the stronger United States Constitution in 1789.
As we know, Continental Congress met in our first courthouse, situated in the center of York’s square, from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778. The British were occupying the former capital, Philadelphia, so the patriots needed to find some place a distance away to safely meet.
To put it mildly, the Articles of Confederation were not viewed so well across the sea. Lila Fourhman-Shaull, Director of York County History Center Library/Archives, shared an excerpt she found there in an original copy of The Universal Magazine for 1781, a British publication. The writer is a bit confused, citing October 4, 1776, when the articles were still being very much debated, instead of November 15, 1777, when the document was adopted. Copies of earlier drafts had undoubtedly been sent to England. In any case, the sentiment of the crown is quite clear:
It was in the midst of the danger of the war, and when the scale of Fortune seemed to hang heavily against them, by the defeat on Long Island, and the reduction of New York, at a time when a great and invincible force, by sea and land carried dismay and conquest wherever it directed its course, that all the Members of the Congress ventured on the 4th of Oct. to sign that remarkable treaty of perpetual compact and union between the thirteen revolted colonies, which lays down an invariable system of rules or laws, for their government in all public cases with respect to each other in peace or war, and is also extended to their commerce with foreign States. This piece which may be considered as a most dangerous supplement to the declaration of Independency, was published under the title of articles of confederation and perpetual union between the thirteen specified states, and has since received, as the necessary forms would permit, the separate ratification of each colony. Such was in general the state of affairs in America at the close of the campaign in the year 1776.
At home, the Parliament was opened, on the 31st of October, by a speech from the Throne, which seemed to breath indignation and resentment; concluding, however, with a declaration, that his Majesty’s desire was to restore to his deluded subjects in America those blessings of law and liberty, equally enjoyed by every British subject, and which they had fatally exchanged for the calamities of war, and the tyranny of their Rulers.
The Articles were not signed in the fashion of the Declaration of Independence, as the British writer seems to assume, but, after adoption, were sent for ratification to the separate states. They went into effect March 1, 1781, with the ratification by the last state, Maryland.
An original first printing of the Articles of Confederation is held in the York County History Center Library/Archives collections. It was printed in Lancaster by Francis Baily, as the Hall and Sellers press did not arrive in York until later in 1777. This is said to be one of only nine known copies, and it is put on display for special occasions.